Re-entry Seminar Made the 2017 Bulgarian Alumni Part of the YES Family

By Mirela Minkova, YES 2016-2017 Bulgaria, hosted by American Councils in Edwardsville, IL
One of the most exciting parts of coming back to Bulgaria after one academic year in the United States is the re-entry seminar for the newest Bulgarian alumni. The meeting gave us the chance to share our experiences from the year, and to talk about future projects that will make a difference in the community.
The re-entry seminar for the 2017 alumni was held on July 12th and 13th in Sofia, Bulgaria. On the first day the seven of the newest alumni met with the alumni coordinator, Shebi Niazi, and with alumni who completed the program in 2016, Victoria, a student in the American University in Blagoevgrad, and Nazi, our next Alumni Coordinator. We were happy to be introduced to the community and immediately felt very close to each other. We felt comfortable and started sharing our most amazing and most difficult moments from the year. Shebi organized a few activities with questions which everyone of us answered for themselves, but later we found out that most of the answers were very similar. This is the best part of the seminar – connecting with people who have been through experiences that you can relate to. Having the opportunity to interact with my Bulgarian YES family has made me feel more confident and optimistic.
After each one of us shared what has been the most challenging part of living in America, we started discussing our re-adjustment to the Bulgarian environment. One of the most important parts of the seminar is sharing advice on how to cope with the reverse culture shock that we all encountered after coming home. Even though we returned to our familiar environment, it does not feel the same. We have grown and developed as individuals and leaders. We realized that now, as more open-minded, organized, and independent young citizens of our country, we are the ones to make a positive impact. In America we became part of a different culture and lifestyle, which made us more tolerant and acceptable of diversity. We all share new skills and qualities that will help us identify the social issues and take action. Even though, the Bulgarian alumni community is still small, it is growing, and there have been multiple projects organized by them. Our coordinator, together with the other alumni shared the activities from previous years that have benefited the community. Shebi talked about how she developed a project for sending letters of hope to the refugees living in bad conditions in the camps. Victoria and Nazi showed us pictures from their project which involved collecting food and helping to feed people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We also learned about the renovation of a room in a nursing home for people suffering from Alzheimer`s disease and dementia, conducted by alum, Georgi Bakoev, city representative in Sofia.
The numerous examples from the great impact that the YES Alumni community has had inspired us to be active, to initiate more projects in the future, and to be responsible ambassadors for the YES program. On the second day of our re-entry seminar, Rumi, the American Councils Assistant Representative, made a presentation on planning and implementing of a project. She emphasized on team work and leadership skills, finding of a team, creating a budget, and accounting for the expenses. Our team even started a plan and elaborated on two projects – one of them was related to ecology and cleaning the environment, and the other one was concerned with solving the problem with the homeless animals in our community. While discussing our ideas, we all found out that we were mainly influenced by our volunteering experience in America. Our motivation and ambition were inspiring and we had a lot of great ides which will make a difference.
The re-entry seminar for the Bulgarian newest alumni has been extremely helpful and prepared us for the second part of being a YES program exchange student – being active ambassadors for the program. Our introduction to the alumni community created bonds for life and enabled us to receive valuable advice. Now we are part of the YES family of ambitious young individuals who are about to make our community a better place.

 

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GYSD Drive Safely Awareness

YES Alumni Coordinator – Bojan Aleksovski (YES ’14) organized a project that aimed to tackle Public Health – Safe Driving, one of this year’s development goals that GYSD is targeting.

MACEDONIA SKOPJE YES Alumni GYSD Drive Safely informative posters

Three YES Alumni and three YES Abroad students met up at the American Councils office. The participants had an open discussion about how to create positive teen-to- teen safe driving campaign reinforcing safe decisions and reducing distracted driving. Throughout the discussion the participants shared their own driving habits and experiences and concluded that many people, including teens themselves, think that the best way to reach young adults is to “scare them straight.” This rarely works. It can be overwhelming and cause teens to shut down. So, focusing on positive actions teens can take to be safe and to keep their friends safe can be a powerful message for teens.

MACEDONIA SKOPJE YES Alumni and YES Abroad work on GYSD Drive Safely project

Having that in mind the present YES Alumni and the YES Abroad students created informative posters about driving safely that are to be hanged in colleges and high schools in Skopje with most driving students. Additionally, the alumni created a social media for social change campaign plan. Namely, every Friday the alumni will post on the official Alumni social media accounts about safe driving.

Introducing the YES program and GYSD to Kumanovo Access Students

On Saturday, April 8th YES Alumni together with YES Abroad met up with students, participants of the Access Program at Pero Nakov High School, Kumanovo.

MACEDONIA KUMANOVO YES Alumni and YES Abroad discussing with Kumanovo Access Program students about Macedonian and American culture

The YES Alumni held a brief presentation about the YES program, promoting and familiarizing the participants with the activities that the Macedonian YES community organizes. The meeting continued with a discussion about the differences between Macedonian and American lifestyle. The YES Alumni and the YES Abroad students shared their experiences and most memorable exchange moments as well as their favorite values of the American and Macedonian culture. The visit to Kumanovo ended with a park clean up carried out by the participants with a goal to celebrate Global Youth Service Day.

MACEDONIA KUMANOVO YES Alumni, YES Abroad and Access program volunteers doing a clean up in honor of GYSD in Kumanovo

GYSD is the largest service event in the world and the only one that celebrates the contributions that children and youth make 365 days of the year. With today’s event, the Macedonian YES community aimed to tackle Sustainable Environment, one of the topics among this year’s causes that GYSD is targeting.

“Step by step” social entrepreneurship project

Georgi Bakoev, 2015-2016, World Link, West Des Moines, IA

“Step by Step”

I left the StartQube Social Entrepreneurship Workshop with a passion to make a positive difference in my home community through social entrepreneurship. During the workshop in Macedonia I learned how to brainstorm effectively, how to come up with an idea that can be implemented, how to structure a team, plan finances, control and manage a given budget, attract investors and volunteers and, finally, pitch entrepreneurship ideas to investors in a real-time challenge.

BULGARIA Step by Step Georgi BakoevAfter I came back to my home country I started brainstorming. Inspired by my GYSD project – which was to help a children’s orphanage in Sofia, Bulgaria – I knew that I had to do something for another extremely neglected group of our society – the elderly people living in nursing houses, funded by the Government. The conditions they have to live in are poor and, in my opinion – unacceptable. That’s the reason why, with the support of my mother, I took on a challenge that was to expand my perspective and understanding of how important community projects are. We found a nursing home for patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia, nearby my neighborhood, had a conversation with the staff and finally both sides agreed that what really needed improvement was the so-called “Quiet Room” – a place where patients can have some time for themselves, which, given their condition, is of great importance. The idea was to raise money by organizing bake sales, give presentations and collect donations, in general.

Together with my family and friends, we took part in a couple of bake sales and sold hundreds of our homemade cookies, cakes and other pastries. At these events, people were curious about our cause and donated without even buying anything. We managed to collect slightly over $400.

The other part of our fundraising was giving presentations not only about the project, but also on social entrepreneurship and the YES program. At the end, with all the money that we raised and the free work of a construction agency, the room was renovated – top to bottom. The staff at the nursing home said that what we did was going to change many lives and although it may not seem as significant to us, to those people living there – it was one world of a difference.

I saw the impact of my project in the following words of a volunteer from our team: “The way I see it, what you are doing right now is just like climbing a hill – step by step. At the end, you will turn around and realize that the whole mountain has been “conquered.”


BULGARIA  YES alum Georgi Bakoev (YES '16) and students from Meridian 22 private school in Sofia after the presentation
 BULGARIA Students from Meridian 22 private school in Sofia listening to Georgi Bakoev's YES presentation

Intercultural Saturday in Sofia

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by  Shebnem Niazi, YES 2013-2014, Bulgaria, hosted by World Link in Kalona, IA

On the 25th of February American Councils for International Education together with Youth for Understanding (YFU) Bulgaria organized a workshop called “Coloured Glasses”. YES alumni, exchange students from both organizations who are currently studying in Bulgaria, their host siblings and best friends gathered at the American council’s office in Sofia to explore and learn about values, cultural differences, stereotypes, non-verbal and verbal communication as well as identity.

The name of the workshop, “Coloured Glasses”, refers to the well-known analogy of the sunglasses which represents the cultural filters through which we observe and interpret reality. The objectives of the workshop were to introduce young people to the concepts of intercultural learning and to raise awareness on problems in society caused by intolerance. The aim of the initiative was achieved by using interactive non-formal education methods.

Intercultural learning has always played an essential role in countering stereotypical and prejudicial racist views. The intercultural element was clear even in the beginning when the workshop started by a fun name game. There were students who have either lived, came from or been exchange students in Denmark, Argentina, Germany, England, Bulgaria and the Unites States of America.

Together we brainstormed different stereotypes that we had of each other or of members of different nations, cultures, communities. It wasn’t difficult to come up with myriads of examples. We realized that when we make inferences about a new person or about some social event, we usually use our existing knowledge to reduce the uncertainty in the situation. The less we know about the object, the more we use stereotypical generalizations. We discussed how such generalizations might be harmful and might lead to errors in decision making that carry the potential for negative consequences, especially when it comes to legal, employment-based and interactive decision-making.

Through interactive group games we were introduced into the concept of identity. We came to the realization that there is a classic confusion between identity, culture, belonging and tradition, in which individual traits are generalised or linked to culture when they are actually much more difficult to define. By playing a “silent” card game we realized that to avoid such confusions we have to be able to communicate with one another effectively. Effective communication is not only verbal. The non-verbal elements, our gestures, body position, tone of speaking play a great role when we are approaching someone.

The YFU volunteers who carefully organized and lead the “Coloured Glasses” workshop provided a space to reflect, to work on individual attitudes and to bring about social change. The initiative reminded us that intercultural learning does not happen at the end of one activity or a week’s training. It is a process of change, which carries on once participants have left the centres and go back to their daily lives. There, they continue reflecting on the courses and on their experiences while interacting with others. And this is how the lessons learned are being (un)consciously implemented.

 

YES Abroad Macedonia Mid-Year Orientation (January 16th and 17th, 2017 – Veles, Macedonia)

By Vesna Naumovska, YES Abroad Coordinator

It’s been 5 months that we have Jeremy, Kyra, Jaleh and Arshia in Macedonia. They were not happy at all that they are on a half way of their exchange, so instead of Mid-Year Orientation we called this Orientation “Trip to Veles”.

We organized everything for our trip on Monday, except the weather – we couldn’t control the weather and since it was snowing so much we couldn’t get on the morning train as planned so we took the later bus instead and we made it safely to Veles.

We had very successful Mid-Year Orientation in Hotel Gardenia. Reflecting on goals and expectations, setting up new goals for the next 5 months and seeing how much students have grown was very interesting and valuable for all.

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Mid-Year Orientation is so essential and students understood the value of it when they were done with all activities. We ended up the first day with relaxing activities enjoying the spa and wellness center at the hotel.

The following day the YES Abroad students met with Aleksandra Najdevska, YES Alumna from Veles. Thank you Aleksandra for spending time with us and sharing your exchange experience. It is always interesting to hear stories from YES Alumni.

My dear students, every day you experience something new. Time flies, so don’t waste time on worries and things that you cannot change or control. Enjoy the rest of your stay in Macedonia, explore and share and be the best youth Ambassadors that you can.

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Holiday Cheer At The American Corner in Banja Luka

By Lela Draganić, YES Programs Local Coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina

 

YES Abroad student Tana and Deputy Director of the Embassy Branch Office with kids at Thanksgiving

YES Abroad student Tana and Deputy Director of the Embassy Branch Office with kids at Thanksgiving

For three years now, the American Corner in Banja Luka has been a wonderful partner to American Councils in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They had provided us with the space to host our events, workshops and activities, and YES alumni and YES Abroad participants volunteer or come with their ideas and organize activities.

This year, we have celebrated every holiday at the Corner: Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Together with U.S. Embassy Banja Luka Branch Office staff, YES Abroad student Tana Korhonen and Cole Potter came up with fun games for elementary school kids and helped read famous American children’s stories on the day. With lots of laughter and squeals, the kids got to participate in a Mummy wrapping competition (toilet paper standing in for ancient band aids),  stuck their hands into ”Mystery Boxes” and touched eyeballs (peeled grapes) and raw brains (spaghetti). While our YES Abroad students were busy chasing after the youngsters, YES alumna Jelena Pilipović spoke to the media about the YES program and the work of American Councils in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

YES alumna Jelena Pilipović, PY 15/16, giving an interview during Halloween activities

YES alumna Jelena Pilipović, PY 15/16, giving an interview during Halloween activities

For Thanksgiving, YES Abroad student Tana helped Mrs. Sutton Meagher, the Deputy Director of the U.S. Embassy Branch Office, read stories to kindergarten and elementary school students. After this ”StoryTime” activity, the kids did some crafts and played games.

YES Abroad student Tana and Mrs. Sutton Meagher reading stories during Thanksgiving celebrations

YES Abroad student Tana and Mrs. Sutton Meagher reading stories during Thanksgiving celebrations

 

Two days after Christmas, during a time slot when the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, Ellie Dupler, runs her English conversation class they screened the now staple Christmas movie, ”Elf”, to a crowd of some 25 people. Since it was announced we would be creating a proper holiday atmosphere and bring some additional cheer by serving hot chocolate, tea, coffee and sweets to the audience, both kids, young adults and adults were in attendance.

Thank you to the American Corner, Fulbright English Teaching Assistants and the U.S. Embassy Branch Office staff. We are looking forward to many more activities and holidays with you!

YES Abroad student Tana hosting the Christmas movie night at the Corner

YES Abroad student Tana hosting the Christmas movie night at the Corner

 

 

 

Thanksgiving in Macedonia

By Jeremy Slater, YES Abroad 2016-17, Macedonia (Skopje)

 

Wow! Time is flying by. As the remaining leaves wither and fall from the trees and the temperature continues to drop, I am reminded of my favorite season, fall. I love this season for many reasons; however, Thanksgiving is by far my most favorite part of autumn.

Thanksgiving is a special time for many American families. It is a time where nuclear and extended families rejoin, eat many flavorful dishes, and have fellowship. I was cautious to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, because being away from my family seemed like a very difficult thing to do. 2016 has been an uphill battle for my family, and celebrating a holiday where family is the center was causing me turmoil. Nonetheless, the wonderful friends I have made here helped this holiday become wonderful, extremely unique, and exciting.

My YES family, which included many entertaining alumni, all had Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday (the night before Thanksgiving). The current YES American students were organized to bring our favorite holiday dishes, and they all turned out phenomenal!

 

I was enlisted to cut the turkey. Let’s just say, I am not the head-of-the-house just yet…

I was enlisted to cut the turkey. Let’s just say, I am not the head-of-the-house just yet…

Finished product!!!

Finished product!!!

 

Also, I was invited by my American friend from church for a Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday. I was very happy to share Thanksgiving with my church family, and I was eager to talk to the Macedonians there about what this holiday means for our families. I am so incredibly thankful for the people who have come into my life; this year I have so much to be thankful for. While at my church’s Thanksgiving dinner, I met three Syrian refugees, who are seeking asylum in Skopje. They have journeyed here from Aleppo and it was very, very interesting talking to them about their odyssey.

Finally, as I end this blog post, I want to thank my two families, my coordinators and directors in DC, my lovely friends back in the States and abroad, for their unending display of love, support, and kindness as this year progresses. Being abroad during the holidays is never going to be easy, but being surrounded by an immensity of tenderness has made it so much easier. I am still so in awe for how incredibly blessed I am and I hope that this year continues to get even better.

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YES Alumni Interview: ”The U.S. Showed Us How To VALUE And Be PROUD OF BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA”

by Lela Draganić, YES Programs Local Coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina

YES Alumni Đorđe Šukalo , Kristina Lukajić and Jelena Pilipović featured in ''BUKA Online Magazine''

YES Alumni Đorđe Šukalo , Kristina Lukajić and Jelena Pilipović featured in ”BUKA Online Magazine”

YES alumni Jelena Pilipović, Đorđe Šukalo and Kristina Lukajić recently gave an interview and spoke about their experiences in the United States and what they learned while on program.

The three young alumni are based in the city of Banja Luka, in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and during a conversation with ”BUKA Online Magazine”, one of the most popular websites in the country, stated that BiH citizens have a lot to learn from Americans. Jelena, Kristina and Đorđe revealed how they hope their compatriots would learn how to ”be prouder and value more our own country, culture and heritage”, something they saw Americans do exceptionally well. They were also happy to see how united the civil society in the U.S. is, without any unnecessary divisions, and they would like to see Bosnia and Herzegovina follow that model.

All three alumni gave a valuable insight into what it looks like to go to an American high school, live with an American family and what everyday life looks in the United states. They had a chance to spend 10 months in the United States, on the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program, which is fully funded by the U.S. Department of State. To find out more about the YES program and how you can participate, go to yesprograms.org

Testing for YES will start in Bosnia and Herzegovina in October and to find out more about the testing dates, requirements and locations, find us on Facebook: YESProgramBiH or check our website for more updates.

You can read Đorđe’s, Kristina’s and Jelena’s entire interview here

City Representatives work to make a positive impact on their communities

When YES Alumni Marija Krsteva wanted to volunteer more in her community and promote the opportunities that are available through YES Abroad, she decided to become a City Representative.

City Representatives are leaders within the YES Alumni community, and they work to coordinate and promote various projects within their groups. City Representatives take initiative to help others with their volunteer projects, and they also work to plan their own volunteer projects.

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Marija Krsteva

“I wanted to challenge the kids to apply (to YES Abroad) and show them that everything is possible through my example,” she said. “I was also thrilled about working with other people, sharing ideas and learning something new.

Once she became a City Representative, Krsteva began a project she called “Seeing Beyond Blindness.” She reached out to blind members of the area where she lived and spoke with them about their needs. After determining how she could best assist them, she worked to obtain a grant through American Councils to purchase 16 white canes for blind individuals who needed them.

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Angela Gekanovik

This is just one of the projects Krsteva has worked on during her time as a City Representative, and both she and YES Alumni City Coordinator Angela Gjekanovikj agree that the position has allowed them to make meaningful connections with those around them and in turn have a positive impact on the community.

Gjekanovikj most recently led a team of YES Abroad students and YES Alumni as they prepared for seven months to compete in the Model United Nations conference. She organized workshops to improve the team members’ resolution writing and public speaking skills. The team went on to represent one of the biggest countries in the competition, Russia, and two members of her team were selected to receive the “best  delegate award.”

In addition to leading the Model United Nations team, Gjekanovikj has facilitated entrepreneurship training during her time as a City Representative. She used NESTA training and tools from a British Councils to lead interactive activities to help the nine participants in attendance develop business ideas and create plans to execute future projects. The goal of the program was to support a diverse group of individuals to start their own businesses and in turn grow business in Macedonia.

Because of the various activities she has participated in while serving as a City Representative, Gjekanovikj said her time in the position has been “interesting and rewarding.” Krsteva also said she enjoys the position because she can help those in her community.

“I can help people directly and indirectly (as a City Representative,” Krsteva said. “For example, I can encourage these kids to apply and I have helped them indirectly, but maybe if I actually teach blind kids some English, I have helped them directly. I feel like I am alive, doing something right.”